As a high school student in Palmer, Colo., Keelin Godsey dabbled in track’s throwing events. Shot put and discus were OK; soccer, basketball and softball were much more interesting.
Heading east to college, Keelin planned to play basketball. But Maine’s Bates College offered a strong track and field program, and Keelin suddenly found enjoyment in throwing.
Bates helped Keelin discover something else: “My sexuality had always been undefined. I’d just felt wrong. I’d read about lesbian history, but that was all I knew.” A freshman seminar introduced Keelin to the concept of “transgender.” Books by Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein helped Keelin figure out that a binary definition of sexuality does not work for everyone.
“I’d always been classified as a butch lesbian,” says Keelin. “I hated that. I never thought of myself that way.” It was harder for Keelin to identify as lesbian than as transgender.
“I am who I am,” Keelin says.
It was, surprisingly, very easy to identify as an athlete. Erica Rand, who teaches courses on contemporary culture – with particular attention to sexuality, race and gender – helped Keelin talk to coaches and athletic administrators. Keelin calls Rand’s help “crucial to how smoothly everything went.”
Track and field coach Jennifer “Jay” Hartshorn was brand new to Bates, Keelin notes, and had “every right to worry” about a transgender athlete.
But, Keelin says, “she was awesome. She asked all kinds of questions about how she could support me. She made sure I didn’t have to deal with any intrusions. She helped me talk to the team, and always stood up for me.”
And, Keelin adds, “she never messed up my pronouns.”
Keelin began referring to himself as “he” in the summer of 2005, prior to his senior year at Bates. However, without going through hormone treatment or gender reassignment surgery, Keelin is still biologically female – and thus competes as a woman, not a man.
Keelin attributes Hartshorn’s instinctive, from-the-get-go support to the simple fact that “that’s who she is: an open, understanding person.” And, Keelin laughs, “she got her coaching degree at Smith.”
Opponents were not always so kind. Keelin was occasionally called “she-male” and “tranny girl.” Keelin shrugged them off, saying, “People are afraid of what they don’t know.” Generally, though, Bates made sure “I didn’t hear about any drama.”
A track and field website posted something about the trans athlete. “They said I was cheating and wanted to have everything. People are entitled to their opinions. I just tried to prove I’m a good competitor. Just had to keep doing what I was doing.”
Keelin found it harder to come out in the trans community than in the athletic world. “This is my experience – I can’t speak for anyone else – but because I didn’t plan on transitioning, trans people didn’t understand my choices. I just wanted to concentrate on my sport. I focused my attention on athletics, and I still do.”
It was a difficult decision. “I can’t look the way I want to look,” Keelin says. “I can’t do what I want to do.”
The focus on training paid off. Keelin is a two-time NCAA national hammer champion, and placed seventh at the 2008 Olympic trials. Last year, at the USA Track & Field championship, Keelin took fifth.
Throwing the hammer takes tremendous patience (“like being trans,” Keelin points out). It’s an extremely technical event. Strength is important – and Keelin spends hours in the weight room, working on speed and explosiveness – but so is technique.
In the post-college track and field world, Keelin’s sexuality is “rarely mentioned. I assume a lot of people know. People think I’m cheating and taking hormones, but I’m not.”
Keelin wants one more shot at the Olympics. The next Games are set for 2012. Before that, the world championships loom. Keelin says, “I want to go as far as I can competitively. It’s a hard choice not to transition. Once I stop competing, we’ll see what happens.”
Training and competing is only part of Keelin’s day. The rest is spent as a physical therapist in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. Keelin also helps coach hammer and discus throwers.
Yet thoughts of sexuality – even of physical therapy – are secondary. For now, Keelin concentrates on track and field. The structure of each day, the physical exertion and the mental preparation provide an important outlet.
But, sexuality aside, Keelin is no different from any elite-level athlete. Competition is key.
“When I have a bad day at practice, I do question why I’m doing this,” Keelin says. “But after a good day, I know why.”